China said on Monday that more than 10 US high-altitude balloons have flown in its airspace without its permission during the past year, following Washington’s accusation that Beijing operates a fleet of surveillance balloons around the world.
The Chinese allegation came after the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had crossed from Alaska to South Carolina, sparking a new crisis in bilateral relations that have spiralled to their lowest level in decades.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin gave no details about the alleged US balloons, how they had been dealt with, or whether they had government or military links.
“It is also common for US balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” he said at a daily briefing.
“Since last year, US high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities.”
Mr Wang said the US should “first reflect on itself and change course, rather than smear and instigate a confrontation”.
China said the balloon shot down by the US was an unmanned airship made for meteorological research that had been blown off course.
It has accused the US of overreacting by shooting it down and threatened to take unspecified action in response.
Also on Monday, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship of targeting a Filipino coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser and temporarily blinding some of its crew in the South China Sea, calling it a “blatant” violation of Manila’s sovereign rights.
Mr Wang said the Philippines ship had trespassed into Chinese waters without permission on February 6 and that Chinese coast guard vessels responded “professionally and with restraint”.
China claims virtually all of the strategic waterway and has been steadily building up its maritime forces and island outposts.
“China and the Philippines are maintaining communication through diplomatic channels in this regard,” Mr Wang said.
China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a question about the incident.
Adding to tensions, a US fighter jet shot down an “unidentified object” over Lake Huron on Sunday on orders from President Joe Biden.
It was the fourth such downing in eight days in an extraordinary chain of events over US airspace that Pentagon officials believe has no peacetime precedent.
The Chinese balloon shot down by the US was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial surveillance programme that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administration declared on Thursday, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.
Part of the reason for the repeated shootdowns is a “heightened alert” following the alleged Chinese spy balloon, General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defence Command and the US Northern Command, said in a briefing with reporters.
The United States has since placed economic restrictions on six Chinese entities it said are linked to Beijing’s aerospace programmes as part of its response to the incident.
The US House of Representatives also voted unanimously to condemn China for a “brazen violation” of US sovereignty and efforts to “deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns”.
Mr Wang repeated China’s dismissal of such claims, saying: “The frequent firing of advanced missiles by the US to shoot down the objects is an over-reaction of over-exertion.”